Say what you will about Rob Zombie, the guy clearly has a vision. Within a matter of seconds, it’s immediately clear that the divisive filmmaker put his stamp all over his latest filthy creation. You’re either on board for his talky, kitschy, 1970s hillbilly funhouse of horrors routine or things get very grating very quickly. Zombie’s latest effort, ’31’, was partially fan-produced through crowdsourcing, so he makes even less concessions than normal to win over the unconverted.
After taking a stab at art horror in ‘Lords of Salem’, Zombie is back into faux grindhouse freakout mode. If you’re inclined to enjoy ‘House of 1,000 Corpses’ or ‘The Devil’s Rejects’, this cheapo variation on old themes should scratch an itch.
In a shocking turn of events, Rob’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie stars in this one. You never would have guessed that, right? Her character Charly is part of a camper van full of carneys traveling the desert (featuring character actors like Jeff Daniel Phillips and forgotten cult stars like Meg Foster). They bumble around and act filthy for a bit. Then they stumble into a storm and are kidnapped by a gang of evil clowns. They awaken to find themselves bound in chains and are now part of a sick game. A collection of ludicrous and mysterious aristocrats (led by the great Malcolm McDowell playing a character called Father Murder) like to celebrate every Halloween by kidnapping some folks and pitting them against a gang of increasingly insane serial killers for the night. The winners get to live, the losers not so much. As for Father Murder and company, they just gamble the night away.
The movie is essentially Rob Zombie’s version of ‘The Running Man’, featuring less gloss and more sleaze. It’s merely intended to be good old-fashioned tasteless fun, and is fairly innocent in intent, if gag-inducing in content. The first killer is a Nazi dwarf who speaks Spanish (Panco Moler). The next are a pair of chainsaw-wielding clowns (David Ury and Lew Temple). The setting is some sort of abandoned sweatshop with fun house frills. Blood is spilled, body parts chopped off. It’s very grim, but it’s clear that Zombie intends those who share his sick sense of humor to giggle away at the insanity. If Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s grand ‘Grindhouse’ experiment had actually worked, ’31’ likely would have been released under that banner.
The good news is that for those seeking a cheap thrill in Zombie’s style, there’s plenty of fun to be had. The director’s “1970s exploitation on acid” aesthetic is alive and well. His images are as striking as they are disgusting, and a murder and/or music video montage is never far away. The actors all commit with dignity and wit (especially Richard Blake as the “final boss” serial killer who chews scenery, spits it out and demands seconds). The shocks sting. There are mild stabs at meaning (pretty much all ‘Purge’ kind of stuff), but mostly it’s an exercise in style. If you like the same movies and music and fairground imagery as Rob Zombie, that style is giddily entertaining. If not… well… you’d know better than to watch a Rob Zombie movie by now.
Even for those who enjoy Zombie’s guilty pleasure neo-exploitation flicks, ’31’ is one of his weaker efforts. The flick might look good, but it was definitely produced on crowd-funding and a prayer. More than that, the project was designed as a chance for the filmmaker to blow off some steam and have a good time after the more heady intentions of his last effort. This is a B-side by a B-moviemaker and expectations should be adjusted accordingly. It’s good greasy fun to kick off Halloween season for those who care. Everyone else is better off not even knowing about it. It’s just easier that way.